Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Freedom of a Christian

Today is a bit different. Rather than reviewing a book, I just wanted to reflect on a shorter piece that I read recently.

"The Freedom of a Christian" (1517) by Martin Luther reflects on the place of works and of faith in the Christian life. He begins by outlining why we can never earn our salvation--we are too sinful, and God is too good. Luther then argues for the importance of works, not as a way to earn salvation, but as a way to show our obedience to God and to discipline our more sinful nature.

Luther was a powerful writer. Of course I am familiar with the idea of justification by faith (that we can never earn our salvation; rather, it is a free gift from God) which Luther expounds here, but rarely has it been so comforting and condemning at the same time. I can stop trying to be perfect, because God loves me no matter what; I can stop trying to be perfect, because I cannot earn God's love or salvation.

Luther goes on to discuss the role of good works in a Christian's life. He sees several reasons to pursue good works and virtue, and he speaks firmly of the need for works in a Christian's life. I was struck by the strength of his statements about works for others: "Individuals do not live for themselves alone in this mortal body to work for it alone, but they live also for all people on earth; rather, they live only for others and not for themselves" (49). Have I ever viewed my self only as a way to help others? I somehow doubt it. It's challenging. Didn't Jesus do it? If so, we should be inspired to strive for a similar level of dedication and love to others.


I read an abridged version of "The Freedom of a Christian" that is in The Protestant Reformation, a collection of Reformation documents edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Book: Allegiant by Veronica Roth (Divergent, Book 3)

Description: The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered--fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she's known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris's new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature--and of herself--while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love. (book jacket)

My Thoughts: I'll just come right out and say it: I LOVED Allegiant! Yes, there were some aspects of it that I disliked, but overall it felt like a very intense novel that stayed true to its story (more on that later).

Both Tobias and Tris struggle with their own brokenness and inner demons throughout Allegiant. They struggled so hard for what was right and struggled to figure out what that meant and made mistakes. That is probably what made me love Allegiant the most. I loved that both characters really struggled, and struggled realistically with themselves as well as with outside forces. It really focused on the day-to-day nature of all choices and of choosing who you want to be (in that you have to make choices every day and those are truly the choices that define you), which I also loved. I hate books that end with, "Well, the main character made one good choice. Everything will be okay and s/he'll be a great person now!", because that's so not how life works.

Allegiant was the first novel in the series where we get to hear from Tobias's perspective as well as from Tris's. I enjoyed seeing beneath his calm exterior and being able to see his inner demons more and how they affected his everyday life. I really enjoyed getting to see events from both Tris's perspective and Tobias's; it was very interesting. Stylistically, however, it was one of the aspects of the book that I enjoyed least. The switch between the two of them almost always happened every chapter, so that it felt almost mechanical and made it hard to keep track of who was speaking at the moment (how the two of them thought about things was sometimes different, but their style of talking/thinking wasn't at all different).

I will admit, it took me a while to get into the story. Part of that was because I hadn't read Insurgent in a while, and Allegiant jumps right back into the story where Insurgent left off--including the high energy and emotion levels, which I wasn't hyped up to when I started reading. And what they found outside Chicago wasn't at all what I was expecting, which was jarring for a while.

*The next paragraph is about the ending. It contains only minor spoilers, but it's only fair to warn you*

And the ending! It felt very true to all the characters and to the story, I thought. It was such a natural extension of what happened beforehand, and so much more realistic than most other endings.

*end of spoilers*

A great book, and a great conclusion to the Divergent trilogy. I can't wait to see what Veronica Roth will do next!

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Crow

Book: The Crow by Alison Croggon (The Third Book of Pellinor)

Description: While Maerad journeys in the far north, her brother, Hem, is sent south to the golden city of Turbansk. There he learns the ways of the Bards and discovers a hidden gift when he rescues a white crow. But when the forces of darkness threaten, Hem flees with his protector, Saliman, and a young orphan girl named Zelika to join the Light's resistance forces. Soon Hem discovers that he, too, has a crucial role to play in the quest to solve the Riddle of the Treesong. (book jacket)

My Thoughts: The Crow is a hard book to review. It's beautifully, beautifully written, but also completely heart-wrenching (I cried twice last time I read it).

The Crow details Hem's journey since he left Maerad in Norloch in The Naming. As such, he begins the novel as a scared boy. Croggon did a wonderful, wonderful job at developing Hem's character as he experiences new places and cultures, sees the joys and sorrows of the world (especially a world at war), and takes part in that world himself. Hem makes a lot of choices--not always good ones, perhaps, but he learns from his mistakes and is always trying to do the right thing.

We also get to see more of the world around Annar, especially Turbansk and its surroundings. We also, for the first time, see Den Raven, the land out of which the Dark forces are coming. It is a land mostly of slaves, oppressed by the dark sorcerers and full of suffering and evil. Croggon never minimizes the suffering that occurs there or that the main characters go through there. Their journey there ends on a mixed note of hope and sadness, and there is a place in the story for the characters to begin to come to terms with what they have experienced and how that has and will change them. I never have the sense that it is a token scene of 'I feel sad because life is awful' that will be followed by the entire episode being forgotten.

Perhaps the only aspect of The Crow that I disliked was the violence and brutality, which I felt was just over the line of decency and necessity. However, it was completely necessary for the plot; it certainly wasn't gratuitous violence added just to have some violence. It was just a tad too much for me.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Outbound Flight

Book: Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn

Description: It began as the ultimate voyage of discovery--only to become the stuff of lost Republic legend... and a dark chapter in Jedi history. Now, at last, acclaimed author Timothy Zahn returns to tell the whole extraordinary story of the remarkable--and doomed--Outbound Flight Project.

The Clone Wars have yet to erupt when Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth petitions the Senate for support of a singularly ambitious undertaking. Six Jedi Masters, twelve Jedi Knights, and fifty thousand men, women, and children will embark--aboard a gargantuan vessel, equipped for years of travel--on a mission to contact intelligent life and colonize undiscovered worlds beyond the known galaxy. The government bureaucracy threatens to scuttle the expedition before it can even start--until Master C'baoth foils a murderous conspiracy plot, winning him the political capital he needs to set in motion the dream of Outbound Flight.
Or so it would seem. For unknown to the famed Jedi Master, the successful launch of the mission is secretly being orchestrated by an unlikely ally: the evil Sith Lord, Darth Sidious, who has his own reasons for wanting Outbound Flight to move forward... and, ultimately, to fail.
Yet Darth Sidious is not the mission's most dangerous challenge. Once under way, the starship crosses paths at the edge of Unknown Space with the forces of the alien Chiss Ascendency and the brilliant mastermind best known as "Thrawn." Even Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, aboard Outbound Flight with his young Padawan student, Anakin Skywalker, cannot help avert disaster. Thus what begins as a peaceful Jedi mission is violently transformed into an all-out war for survival against staggering odds--and the most diabolical of adversaries.
Timothy Zahn's unique mix of espionage, political gamesmanship, and deadly interstellar combat breathes electrifying life into a Star Wars legend. (book jacket)

My Thoughts: Well... I wouldn't go so far as "breathes electrifying life."

I enjoyed reading about certain characters' stories. Thrawn is always SO much fun to read about. I love watching him figure things out and make brilliant tactical decisions (and yes, I very much enjoy the confusion of everyone around him as well!). He was much more of a free agent here than he was later. Watching Palpatine's/Sidious' machinations was also great fun. I especially enjoyed the fact that one character was working for both Palpatine and Sidious... ah, the irony!

And the ending was a perfect, perfect Star Wars ending. It epitomized why I love Star Wars so much!! *very minor spoiler* It involved amazing self-sacrifice and beating ridiculous odds. What's not to love? *end of spoiler*

Unfortunately I had to read the rest of the book to get to the ending. A huge part of my problem with this book (actually all Star Wars novels set just before and during the Clone Wars) is that I know what's going to happen--maybe not at the end of the book (although this time I did--come on, the book flap tells you that Outbound Flight is doomed!), but certainly in a few years. Somehow, the Emperor will make whatever happens work to his advantage, even when the Jedi feel all accomplished because they've saved something or someone. It's very frustrating!!

But I was curious what happened to Outbound Flight, so I decided to check this out when I saw it at the library. (Maybe from now on I should just read the Wookieepedia page?).

My main problem with Outbound Flight was the characters. ALL of them were stupid and/or annoying!! There was one character that I liked (C'baoth's student, Lorana Jinzler), probably because she actually experienced character development, but everyone else was just frustratingly unintelligent. Obi-Wan was still an awful teacher at this point, and not a very good Jedi; Jorus C'baoth was just incredibly arrogant; the smugglers Qennto, Ferasi, and Car'das seem oddly content to be captured by Thrawn for months on end. I think I would have thrown my copy of this book multiple times if it hadn't been a library book--and I have to be very frustrated to want to throw a book!! Most characters fell flat, which made it very very hard to become invested in the story.

So I clearly didn't enjoy Outbound Flight all that much. It was meant as a light read, and that's what it was (and not a very well-done one, at that). Fans of Zahn's earlier Thrawn trilogy will probably enjoy it; many of the same players are brought in and explored further, but I didn't much enjoy that trilogy and enjoyed Outbound Flight even less.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The documentary hypothesis

Last week I mentioned the documentary hypothesis, which is about how the Bible was formed into its current form. When I was searching for a website to link my more curious readers to, I was surprised by how negatively Christianity seems to view this idea. When I searched for "Documentary Hypothesis", my first two pages of results consisted of the Wikipedia article about the hypothesis and extremely hostile refutations of the hypothesis on Christian websites. Why are Christians so hostile to this idea? And why are those Christians the ones whose websites appear first on a search? I know plenty of Christians for whom the documentary hypothesis is something they have no problem accepting, or at least considering.

Yes, I know the documentary hypothesis is not perfect. There are plenty of things about it that don't make total sense, like why the sources were put together the way they were (why so many duplicates? Did s/he/they really take sentences from two or three sources and smoosh them together?) (here is where wikipedia talks about it). But the basic idea is sound. I trust the people who've thought about it, much more knowledgeably than me. I've read enough about it and seen enough evidence that I'm willing to say that it makes sense and explains a lot (like why have two versions of creation in Genesis 1-2? Why does the same event, like Moses striking the rock to bring forth water, happen so often on the Exodus?).

So why do so many Christians argue so vehemently against the documentary hypothesis? It is jarring to think of the Bible as something written by real people, with their own culture and personalities and sins and situations, and not just as "perfect" and "one unified book". The Bible wasn't just handed down from heaven on a golden platter in its current form; God worked through broken humans to write the Bible, as He does to accomplish anything here on earth. It raises uncomfortable questions--how should I read the Bible? How do I take the original context into account? Does the Bible contain mistakes?

Yes, such questions are uncomfortable. But what is life without questions? I never want to live in a way that I stop asking questions--even when those questions are uncomfortable, even when I'm not sure that I want to know the answers, even when those questions are deeply unsettling and faith-shaking.

God is big enough for my questions.

Monday, November 18, 2013


Book: Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke (Inkheart trilogy)

Description: The final book in the Inkheart Trilogy, Inkdeath describes Mo's continuing struggle to survive in the Inkworld. The Adderhead is trapped in a painful life because of the magical life-bringing book that Mo made him; Orpheus is becoming rich by using his talented tongue for others; Fenoglio has given up on life in despair; Farid is serving Orpheus in the hope that he will give him his heart's desire; and Mo, Resa, and Meggie live in the forest with the Black Prince and other outlaws as Mo continues to act as the Bluejay.

My Thoughts: As always, Funke writes masterfully. Her descriptions, especially of emotions, are beautiful and gripping. She successfully weaves together many different stories in a way that is not at all confusing (even I didn't have trouble keeping the storylines apart, and I'm awful at names); instead, the different storylines heighten the suspense and allow her to explore many different characters and settings at once.

Inkheart had a lot of elements that I felt reflected back on Christianity in some ways. All three books of the trilogy of full of characters who repeatedly try to force life to turn out how they think it should go, and these attempts always end miserably for them and for those around them. I was intrigued by the theme of authorship throughout Inkheart especially, where the story becomes dark and out-of-control without a good author to guide it in the right direction (I was, however, extremely unhappy with Funke's choice of Author).

All the characters were fully fleshed out and felt real to me, but in the end that was one of the reasons I didn't hugely enjoy Inkheart. Everyone seemed stuck in their old habits, and simply made the same bad choices over and over and over and never seemed to learn. Realistic, perhaps, but also depressing and difficult to read.

One of the few books I've read this year that I didn't particularly like. I'll admit that I read it mostly out of loyalty to the first book, Inkheart (which, by the way, is amazing!), and to Dustfinger. Inkdeath was thought-provoking but extremely difficult to get through.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Riddle

Book: The Riddle by Alison Croggon (The Second Book of Pellinor)

Description: Maerad is a girl with a tragic and bitter past, but her powers grow stronger by the day. Now she and her mentor, Cadvan, hunted by both the Light and the Dark, must unravel the Riddle of the Treesong before their fractured kingdom erupts in chaos. The quest to solve this ancient puzzle lures Maerad ever closer to the seductive Winterking--author of her sorrows and the ally of her most powerful enemy, the Nameless One. Trapped in the Winterking's icy realm, Maerad must acknowledge what she has always suspected--that she is the greatest riddle of all. (book jacket)

My Thoughts: The Riddle has always been my favorite book of the Pellinor series. I relished the chance to reread it.

In many ways The Riddle answers many of the problems I had with The Naming, especially how easily Maerad seems to adjust to her new lifestyle. The Riddle opens and closes with Maerad struggling to deal with her own fears and assumptions and way of thinking, many of which things are heavily influenced by her earlier life as a slave. She struggles against the feeling that she doesn't belong anywhere that she and Cadvan travel to as well as with her feelings of inadequacy and ill-preparedness.

Again, The Riddle is masterfully written. Maerad and Cadvan travel all over the land of Annar and beyond, so that the story has an impressive breadth. Croggon doesn't create any radically new cultures, but each feels unique and authentic. Everything they encounter is beautifully described, and it was a joy to read, as always. Maerad's emotions were described beautifully as well, in a way that truly allows you to enter into her struggles and triumphs.

I was truly struck by a moment in Maerad's lessons, when her teacher tells her, "There is no single truth [...]. But all these truths, woven together, might give us a picture of what is true. That is why it's important to know all the different stories. We can never see all the sky at once." (p. 44) My first reaction was negative--there is only one truth!--but the more I thought about it, the more I was... well, intrigued. Of course it's not the first time I've run across this idea, but I was reading the novel right after reading a similar idea in the Old Testament class. A lot of modern scholarship on the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) is based on the documentary hypothesis, which is that several sources were combined by final editors to create the Pentateuch as we know it today. Our textbook makes the point that the final editors weren't concerned with forcing each of these sources to agree; rather, they wanted to preserve the sacred tradition that each represented.* I interpreted this (quite possibly incorrectly) to mean that the final editors believed that each source contained truth, even if each source also appeared to contradict the other sources; there was a deeper truth that had to be preserved. As I write, I am also reminded of a C. S. Lewis example, of how each person ultimately experiences something of God that is different than what every other person experiences, and so knows God in a different way than any other person.** In both of these examples, I see an acknowledgement of the reality that no one single person (or book, or moment, or...) can perfectly and totally contain and represent the person of our infinite God. That is why different perspectives are so important (otherwise why have four gospels? Why not just one? Why have so many prophets preaching at the same time and the same place?). Each one contains truths--and probably also untruths. It is narrow and arrogant to assume that each person has the same experience (as you) in life, and those different experiences mean that certain truths and perspectives will resonate and make sense and seem more true to some people than they will to others--each person has different passions! But each perspective contains a unique knowledge of an uncontainable, indescribable God.

A wonderful story of maturing, and beautifully written. As always, the Pellinor series is highly recommended!

* Michael D. Coogan. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scripture. p. 106.
** I'm afraid I have no idea where this example is from. If I had to guess, I would say either Mere Christianity or The Problem of Pain.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Long Walk to Freedom

Book: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Country: South Africa

Description: Here Nelson Mandela recounts his life up to the time he voted for the first time (1994). He includes his childhood, time as a lawyer, and his 27 years in prison.

My Thoughts: Long Walk to Freedom was a fascinating read. Mandela was incredibly honest about his regrets, especially that he didn't spend enough time with his family. Of course the perspective is biased, but it is his memoir, after all!

Mandela wrote in a very conversational style which made Long Walk to Freedom easy to read. I'll admit that at first I found it slightly off-putting--he very much tells you what he was feeling at any given time, rather than trying to help you feel what he was feeling--but I suspect that was more of a left-over on my part from reading too many novels. The style worked very well for what he needed to do, which was tell the story of his life.

What I found most powerful was Mandela's descriptions of his childhood and young adulthood. It was during this period that he still thought that whites were superior in every way, and I loved hearing about how he fought against this perception until it was no longer the truth for him that it had once been. It was also something of a shock--I've never thought much about what it would be like to grow up utterly believing that a certain group or race or whatever was so superior. Mandela did a great job describing the process of discovering the lies he'd been told, and I especially liked the little incidents he described that showed this process: the first time he saw a black man stand up to a white man and not be reprimanded, the first time he was humiliated at being sent on an errand by a white man he didn't know (rather than agreeing that he should be sent on errands).

A fascinating book on Mandela's life and the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Naming

Book: The Naming by Alison Croggon
(The First Book of Pellinor)

Description: Maerad is a slave in a desperate and unforgiving settlement, taken there as a child after her family is destroyed in war. She is unaware that she possesses a powerful gift, one that marks her as a member of the School of Pellinor. It is only when she is discovered by Cadvan, one of the great Bards of Lirigon, that her true heritage and extraordinary destiny unfold. Now she and her new teacher must survive a journey through a time and place where the dark forces they battle stem from the deepest recesses of otherworldly terror.
(from the book jacket)

My Thoughts: As the description hints at, this is not a fantasy full of superficial happiness and glittery fairies. Croggon does not hesitate to grapple with the evil and cruelty in the world and in the human soul. But if the land of Annar is full of darkness, it also full of equally good, kind people who refuse to be cowed by the darkness around them.

Croggon is a masterful writer; her descriptions of the land and the people Maerad and Cadvan see are gorgeous--so easy to read, and they make everything just seem to jump off the page. She is equally skilled at describing Maerad's emotions. Maerad is one of the few characters I've read, certainly recently, that is realistic in ways that I didn't even think about until Croggon brought them up, things like Maerad having her period or not behaving consistently all the time (sometimes she's afraid and timid, at other times brave; sometimes she's mature beyond her years, at other times she sulks). She's just a person. Other characters, although of course not described in depth, are also well-developed, and in a sense that seems true to life where bits and pieces are revealed over time.

The Naming is the beginning of an epic fantasy series, in the best sense of an epic (it is actually supposedly based on an ancient Annaran epic poem). It draws heavily from Lord of the Rings in some ways, and that's certainly what it reminds me of, but I'll admit that I much prefer this series. Croggon includes multitudes of female characters performing awesome feats but also just living, there's actual character development, and it's a world that is both distant and familiar.

My one complaint against The Naming is how quickly Maerad changes after she is rescued from slavery. She's rescued... and two or three weeks later she's happily learning how to write (which she's amazingly good at) and use a sword at a School, apparently well-adjusted to her new circumstances. A bit far-fetched to me.

Overall, a fantastic fantasy novel with strong but imperfect characters and an enchanting world. Highly recommended!!!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Reading quote

"If a man wants to be always in God's company, he must pray regularly and read regularly. When we pray, we talk to God; when we read, God talks to us."
                      ~Isidore of Seville